Once again, special teams miscues proved costly for the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday. This time, the price paid for the errors was an ugly loss to unranked Vanderbilt. In a four-point loss to the Commodores, special teams blunders directly led to 21 Vanderbilt points.
When all was said and done, an opportunistic Commodore team faked a field goal for a touchdown in the second quarter, recovered a fumbled punt return and delivered the final punch in the form of a 13-yard scoring run following a snap that went over Georgia punter Collin Barber’s head. But all of those Vanderbilt openings could have been closed by proper execution in the third phase of the game: special teams.
Instead, Mark Richt’s depleted team suffered one of the more disappointing losses in recent memory, and he bears much of the burden for the setback. Special teams struggles, in general, are not a new problem for the Bulldogs, and on a much more finite scale, the deficiencies on display Saturday were more of the same for the Dawgs.
Georgia has struggled to defend fake kicks over the past several years, something that Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin seemed keenly aware of. Two years ago, his cause was aided by a fake punt against the Bulldogs. This year, he turned a 4th-and-3 scenario in the second quarter into a three-yard rushing touchdown, and more importantly, a 14-10 lead.
Still searching for a steady return man seven games into the season, Georgia’s Damian Swann fumbled a punt return late in the third quarter as Vanderbilt fell on the ball just 36 yards away from paydirt. Several plays later, Vanderbilt once again reached the end zone and pulled within six points.
Long-snapping has been an issue for Georgia already this season when a poor snap and hold cost the Bulldogs a chip-shot field goal in a three-point loss to Clemson. A lack of attention to detail once again haunted the Bulldogs today as a snap soared over the out-stretched hands of Barber. One offensive play later, Vanderbilt took a four-point lead that would not be relinquished.
Ten SEC teams employ special teams coaches and/or coordinators. Georgia is not one of them. To date, Richt has maintained that things will remain unchanged. But while Georgia maintains status quo, the blame for this game falls squarely on the special teams unit, and that in turn falls on Richt.
A few weeks ago, Richt assured improvements would be made when he preached accountability to Seth Emerson of the Macon Telegraph, saying:
It doesn’t matter whether you split it up or give it to one guy. The bottom line is you’ve gotta get the job done. Everybody knows who’s had issues that can’t happen anymore. Everybody takes that personally, and everybody’s working hard at it.
Based on those comments by Richt and Georgia's continued lack of success on special teams, it appears that change is necessary. Will there be a personnel adjustment within the coaching staff? Is a special teams depth chart shake-up in order?
Sadly, changes will offer little consolation for Georgia fans who saw their team’s BCS aspirations evaporate at the hands of kicking game mishaps. The 21 Vanderbilt points that followed Georgia’s misfortune on special teams managed to effectively squander a golden opportunity.
As fellow SEC East contenders South Carolina and Florida fell in defeat and seemed to present an opportunity for the Dawgs to separate themselves (along with Missouri) atop the division, it was an all too disturbing trend that eliminated Georgia.
On a day that saw a much-maligned Georgia defense make plays and a once-prolific Bulldog offense held to just over 200 yards of offense, there was unfortunately no role-reversal to be found for the special teams unit.
This loss and Georgia’s continued special teams struggles should fall on a special teams coordinator, but that position is vacant in Athens. And that is Mark Richt’s fault.